Recognizing Value in Paintings: Signatures, Initials, and Unsigned Paintings

Taking some of the mystery out of recognizing value in Fine Art Paintings is a topic I get many e-mails on. 31 Club Members call and e-mail me about wonderful paintings they’d like to buy, but the artist can’t be identified. Maybe there are only initials, a signature that can’t be read, or just simply a monogram with a figure on the painting. Perhaps the signature can be read, but the artist is not in the guides on paintings. People have often said to me, “I liked the painting, but I didn’t purchase it because I couldn’t identify it.” This could be a huge mistake.

If you judge a painting to be worth $400 because of the frame, the content, and quality of the work, and you can purchase it for about $100, then your decision is made. Even if the painting is not signed, you might not want to hesitate to purchase it. I have seen paintings in beautiful frames sell for $100, and after a little research, it was discovered that the frame was a Newcomb-Macklin frame worth up to $1,000. And this might be a real shocker: Some vintage frames have been known to bring over $100,000. And, unsigned paintings can still sell for thousands, as William shared with me when he saw an unsigned painting sell for over $5,000.

I have seen signatures appear after the painting had been cleaned and have found signatures hidden behind a frame. So, if you buy a painting for a few dollars and know that it’s worth more than four times what you paid for it, then it has met our rule for buying. Anything from there that enhances its value is only a plus.

I’ve accumulated many secrets over the past 45 years in this business and I’ve shared many of them them in my book. Today, I’ll share one of those secrets with you.

Did you know that, like authors who’ve written under pen names, artists also painted under alternate names? Did you know Leon Gaspard also painted under the name Leon Schulman and John Edward Castagno used the name Czako? Artists painted under alternate names, and they are listed in the back of American Signatures and Monograms by John Castagno. In the back of this book on signatures and monograms, you will also find the initials used by some of the greatest artists to ever decorate a canvas. If you find a painting signed with only initials, the identity of that artist might be discovered right here in this book. If you’re serious about finding valuable paintings, there might be a true treasure waiting for you because others didn’t have this information, but you did. Castagno’s books are very expensive, but if your interest lies in this area, his books will prove to be key tools for you. The link to the book is at then end of my Blog.

At a house I was called to about several items, I stumbled across a painting of an Indian Chief that looked to be unsigned. I asked what they were asking for it. The answer came quickly: $250. I thought that was a good price, but I asked if I could take it out of the frame. They agreed, and lo and behold, there was a signature behind the frame I didn’t recognize. I had just made a very serious mistake.

You see, the owner quickly asked if I would mind if they waited another day before they sold the painting. We had already settled on several other items I was purchasing, and I didn’t want to miss out on those items as well, but I said, “Sure” anyway.

That evening I quickly researched the painting and found that it was worth about $10,000. I called back the next day but they told me that their daughter really liked the painting, so they’ve decided it should stay in the family. You see, they had done their research after I left, also. So, remember this story, and keep this in mind: If you come to the conclusion that something should be purchased, stop trying to convince yourself further and simply buy it.

You may find that this approach will produce several paintings that will only return you a small profit, but by taking a risk, you might end up with a piece that will make your whole year or even more.


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